Theatre interview: Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room, performed by Coleen van Staden, premiering online at National Arts Festival 2021

What: Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room

Platform: The Fringe, National Arts Festival 2021 Dates: July 8-31, 2021- available as VOD- video-on-demand – ie anytime Tickets: R45 Language: English Duration: 50 minutes Direct booking link: Performer and writer: Coleen van Staden Director: Celia Musikanth  

“Look, our family’s dysfunction is on a scale of one to ten- with one being the least and ten the most…” Listen to the teaser on the National Arts Festival’s Fringe for Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room. The solo memoir drama is on the vFringe at the NAF 2021. I had a good laugh. I am sure many people can relate. A popular mantra in the pandemic is that “family is everything”. For many, family is definitely not everything. Coleen van Staden has a wry and self-deprecating sense of humour and this is evidenced in her solo play which is premiering on the vNAF- inspired by “elements” of her “imperfect life”- peppered by “single parenthood, children, and absent fathers.” In Perfect Day, “a woman “arrives early for an unspecified event that is arranged by her daughters and being held for her. Her unease at arriving way too early, slowly fades as she pages through a photo album that has been left on display.  The photographs prompt her to recall, in a series of snapshot moments and vignettes, stories and incidents from her life.” The genesis of the piece goes back to 2019 – before the pandemic – and its gestation was driven by the lockdown – when there was time to step back and process the material and take it to the virtual stage- as the first step in its staging. Ahead of watching the piece, here is TheCapeRobyn interview with Coleen van Staden.

TheCapeRobyn: Do you describe. Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room – as a play/memoir?

Coleen van Staden:  It is a solo piece that combines theatre and storytelling and draws on some elements of my own life.

TheCapeRobyn: When did you start writing the piece?

Coleen van Staden: Having enjoyed writing, since I was a kid, and after attending a six week writing course in 2015, I decided to write something for the stage that I could perform.  It made sense to me to draw on my own experience of family, single parenthood, children, and absent fathers. I started writing this in July 2019 and tested it at readings with friends, writers, actors, and family members.  Many drafts later, I knew that the vNAF Fringe would be the starting point. I needed to get the piece onto the boards and gauge the response before I perform it live, on-stage, in a more Covid-friendly future.

TheCapeRobyn: Where did you grow up and how have aspects of your life been distilled in this piece?

Coleen van Staden: I grew up in Sea Point, Three Anchor Bay and Camps Bay. The smell of the Atlantic and its kelp forests bring back fond memories of snorkelling with my father.  To get his attention and love my brother and I had to meet him in his world – photography, the sea and in later life- deep dives of discovery to try and fathom our place in the universe. My mother and grandmother lived and loved in sunshine. That more than compensated for a cold and often distant father.  Girls who are not sure of their father’s love lack confidence and often end up making bad choices. I was that girl. The character in this piece has her memories prompted by a scattered collection of photographs and this mirrors the recollections of my own life – never linear, seemingly scattered and often evoked by a smell, a picture, or even a song.  Because of my father’s love of photography and because I spent many hours as a child in his darkroom watching a “story” develop as he washed  the images, I used this as a theme to tell my story. I tend to think in pictures/images and respond, like many of us, to particular smells. I drew on this- pictures and scents- when writing the script. The character in this piece faces and acknowledges –what has transpired in her life – choices made and things which happened –not necessarily by choice. She has arrived very early at an unspecified event planned by her daughters. As she waits, she unpacks and examines memories and reflects on her role as a single parent; her mother’s influence in her life, and how the period of her married life was perhaps influenced more by music than the presence of a husband. Each of us has a unique story that we can choose to tell in several ways.  I am using theatre to tell mine. Of course, it is subjective but I hold the ‘talking stick’ and I choose what to keep, what to throw away and what to ‘forgive’ and what to share with my audience.

TheCapeRobyn: What spurred you to tell a very personal story to stage and to share your personal pain, on stage; albeit the virtual stage, at this point?

Coleen van Staden:  I was encouraged to tell my story after seeing Jervis Pennington’s An Ordinary Life and from Koe’siestes to Kneidlach by Chantal Stanfield. I realise that both are well known in the arenas of music and theatre and probably enjoy a little more exposure via their fan bases.   The performances and experiences that they brought to the stage were as different as their individual stories – and I like to think that mine will be as well. Working with Celia Musikanth as my director, was a pleasure. We have done many community shows together.  Working on one-person shows is her métier and she has a keen ear and eye.  My personal writing style, if I compare it to music, is more jazz than country: Some surprises, complexity, spaces and blue notes, rather than chronological, predictable with little or no spaces and the obligatory key change.

TheCapeRobyn: Working in the pandemic, you staged the play and filmed it so it is a staged recording and that must have had its challenges?

Coleen van Staden:  I found this challenging- working with a filmed recording.  I have not worked in front of camera before as an actor. My experience has only ever been on stage in front of an audience. I was at first, quite intimidated by it.  My piece calls for a sharing of comments and opinion with the audience, so I had to figure out quickly how best to engage my audience through the camera lens. The NAF and team at Gallery 44 was incredible. My daughter came in as assistant director in the last week and was a great help to me as well.  We are grateful for support from the NAF for the filming of the piece for the use of the Gallery 44 on Long as a theatre space. Without this financial and creative support from the NAF, this piece would not have been staged, for recording. It is great that it will be accessible to an audience – across borders – out of Cape Town – and abroad. We look forward to feedback – and developing it further for on-stage – with an audience in a theatre – when the pandemic allows us to venture safely back into theatre. Without the NAF, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go stage it now, so we are very excited to be part of the festival.

Coleen van Staden- writer and performer of the solo theatre piece- Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room– inspired by elements from her own life. The play is premiering online at the vNAF Fringe – virtual National Arts Festival – July 8-31, 2021- available as VOD- video-on-demand – ie anytime. Supplied.

Perfect Day – Pictures from a Dark Room – creative credits

Produced by: Circle Productions, Cape Town
Written and performed by: Coleen van Staden
Director: Celia Musikanth
Assistant director: Claire Botsis
Stage manager: Merle Gideon
Videographers: Andrew Herman and Edward Adams
Audio engineer: Brandon Kemp
Lighting: Enrico Cloete and Moegamat Cloete    

✳This interview has been marginally edited for length and clarity. Images supplied.